For the last time, Paula Townsend, steely, pale, 101, stared up at the circular stained-glass window. “Suffer Little Children To Come Unto Me,” it read.
“Was this the dining room?” she asked. The memories inched back. “We were always hungry, we didn’t care what they gave us . . . I don’t remember what dessert was. Maybe an apple?”
Townsend was still crawling when her father ran away to Hollywood and her mother surrendered her 12 suffering children unto the Home For Little Wanderers. This red-brick Jamaica Plain building, opened in 1915, was the first home she knew. And these many years later, Townsend remembers it with great fondness.
For generations of Boston children, the Home’s Knight Children’s Center on South Huntington Avenue was the stuff of idle threats: Behave yourself or I’ll leave you there, harried parents would scold. For thousands of others, it became a refuge amid turmoil — or at least a reliable certainty. Over the decades, it has hosted children whose parents passed away, or passed the point of caring. It has taken in children whose families could no longer feed them, or were so overwhelmed by their behavioral problems that they could no longer live with them.
On Thursday, the Knight Center sends the last of its charges to a sparkling new facility in Walpole. The Jamaica Plain building will be sold, and probably razed. Townsend agreed to take one last look around the place. Surveying its empty rooms and crumbling ceilings, she recalled a way of life — and of caring for unlucky children — that was gone long before this sprawling building’s demise.
Townsend, who lived at the Knight Center until she was 6, was there longer than any of her siblings save Arnold, the eldest, who “wouldn’t let anybody adopt him.” Dorothy, Helen, and Phillip were put on an orphan train and ended up with three different families in Whitman. The others found permanent homes, too.
Paula was never adopted into a permanent family “because I was ugly,” she joked. Actually, she was a sick child, frequently hospitalized with chronic, severe ear infections. She remembers those who tended to her at the Home as kind, though she had nothing to compare them with.
“I didn’t know what a home was,” Townsend said. “I didn’t know what a mother was.” What she knew was a succession of social workers who seemed to genuinely care for her. They watched over her after she moved into a foster home, then to a Revere boarding school, then into jobs as a mother’s helper and sales clerk, right up to her marriage in her mid-twenties.
“Every social worker I had, I took their first name for my middle name, because I didn’t have one of my own,” Townsend said, surveying a green-walled classroom Monday where teachers were busy filling boxes for the move. “Sylvia, Ethel, Gertrude, Evelyn. I had so many middle names!”
Kids didn’t expect much in those days. They took what they were given: Beds in giant dormitories, whatever was on offer in the dining hall, clothes from a shared closet, and medication after supper each night. In the old third-floor infirmary, with its peeling paint and worn carpet, Townsend tried to remember what the medicine was for. It’s likely she never knew in the first place. This was a time when institutions routinely medicated children to make sure they slept through the night, or stayed docile.
For all of that, the Home was considered state-of-the-art for its time.
“It was one of the first facilities to offer all-around care: Education, adoption, foster care, as well as tending to the well-being of kids who lived there,” said Eileen Crittle, communications director for the Home, and its unofficial historian. Despite its reputation, it was never really an orphanage: The goal was always to care for kids in crisis temporarily, then to move them into new homes, or back to their old ones. In that spirit, the Knight Center’s third floor was turned into a temporary polio ward in 1916. In 1940, it housed children evacuated from London during the Blitz.
Hindsight and disrepair made Townsend’s last tour through these corridors a melancholy affair: Compared with today, her era, when overwhelmed families routinely parted with their sons and daughters, seems barbarous. She was stoic about her childhood, and seemed uncomfortable with sympathy. But those who love her — her son, Allan, who pushed her wheelchair around the building Monday afternoon, and her daughter, Dorothy, who came along — struggled to remain composed.
“I had to turn away when she said she never knew what a mother was,” Allan said.
We don’t care for kids like Townsend the way we once did. Now we have a safety net meant to keep struggling families together. In all but the most extreme cases, we treat children’s mental and behavioral problems in ways that involve their parents. Over the last decade, driven partly by shrinking budgets, the state has pushed hard for community-based care.
That progress is written all over this old building. The Knight Center’s third floor has been unused, and in decline, for a decade or more. The number of kids living at the center has halved over the last five years, to a couple dozen (others visit each day for special education classes, counseling, and family services). Its big dormitories were divided into smaller bedrooms, then converted to offices. The dining hall where Townsend ate her meals became a classroom.
The Walpole center, called Longview Farm, hosts small housing units with their own kitchens. There are many more visiting rooms for families, and more privacy for kids. Set on 165 acres, it has a vegetable garden, a ropes course, and room to run around. Social workers there, like those in the Home’s other programs, work in kids’ homes as well as in the residential center. While parts of the Jamaica Plain facility evoke Dickens, nothing about the new building screams “institution.”
It is a world away from the Knight Center Townsend knew.
The little girl who adopted her social workers’ names grew up and into a full life. She has two engaging, devoted children, two grandchildren, and five great grandchildren. Over the years, she reconnected with her siblings, sometimes through happenstance: She recognized her sister Theodora’s name on a painting for sale at the Boston department store where she worked as a young woman, and ran into her older brother Richard at a visitor center in Nova Scotia. The last of her siblings died in January, on New Year’s Day.
She should have had more as a child. But she won’t yield to regret. The Home for Little Wanderers gave her stability, even a measure of love.
“I’m very grateful that they had this place for me,” she said, before her son wheeled her out for good.